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On-line version created: 1998-05-28
Page content last updated: 2011-01-23
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No more errors, or else!
"No more English errors … Ever!"

How To Avoid Sounding Like an Idiot

Avoiding the Pet Peeves of People Who Read Your Stuff

Outline of Topics

  1. Introduction: What This Is & Why You Should Care (on this page)
  2. File I: Technical Stuff
    1. Mass Nouns & Count Nouns
    2. Commas & Restrictive Clauses
    3. Commas in a Series
    4. Hyphens & Common Sense
    5. Indirect Questions & Quotations
    6. Quoting Other People's Mistakes
    7. Apostrophes & the Possessive Case
    8. Who, Whom, She, Her, He, Him, I, Me
    9. Greek & Latin Plurals
    10. The Pronouns "One" and "Their"
    11. "Each" and "Every"
    12. Subject-Verb Agreement
    13. Erratic Singular-Plural Shifts
    14. Parallelism
    15. The English Subjunctive in Orders & Requests
    16. The English Subjunctive & Statements Contrary to Fact
    17. Split Infinitives
    18. Nouns Used As Verbs
    19. Weird Shifts of Tense or Grammatical Mood
    20. Chinese Emperors
  3. File II: Wings Unsteady in Flight
    1. Gerunds & High Anxiety Prose
    2. Outrunning One's Vocabulary: More High Anxiety Prose
    3. Anacoluthon
    4. Foreign Words
    5. Latin Abbreviations
    6. Spelling & Proofreading
    7. Proofreading Beyond Spelling
    8. A Short List of Troublesome Expressions
      Affect, All Right, Alright, Anyway, Appear, As,
      Compose, Comprise, Effect, Envious, Kind,
      I, Imply, Infer , In-laws, Inter , Intra, Jealous ,
      Lay, Lead, Led, Lend , Lie , Like, Loan,
      Manifest , Me, Method , Methodology, None,
      Plus, Presently, Reason, Self, Simple, Simplistic,
      Than Type
  4. File III: Foot-in-Mouth Disease
    1. Signs of Suspect Sources
    2. Signs of Fashionable Thoughtlessness
    3. Writing Definitions
    4. Awkward Embedding
    5. Misc.
  5. File IV: Logical Mistakes
    1. Texts Are Not Behavior
    2. Value Judgments Are Not Analysis
    3. Time Passes
    4. Opinions Are Not Facts
    5. East & West Are Not Places
    6. Made-Up Stories Are Not History

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Introduction: What This Is & Why You Should Care

Written English is not going to go away any time soon. And in at least the near future, as in the past, how far you get in this world will be determined far more importantly than you think by how well you write. Although people who are only partially literate can get enviable jobs, they do so against much steeper odds than people who can write well.

The standards of written English vary by context, of course, just as the standards of spoken English do. Matching the standard to the context is what is involved with style. In general, the best writers have good mastery of several standards. Adequate writers —those who can usually make English serve them well— control at least relatively formal, normal, written English. To me, this means that they can write in a way that expresses what they intend to express without calling unfavorable attention to the writing itself and without introducing unintended implications.

This is the "correct" English of generations of school teachers, and it is what readers expect literate people to use. What departs from it is, in context, an "error," sometimes one with unfortunate consequences.

A single English error in an application can keep you out of graduate school or lose you a job. I have seen it happen more than once. (Yes!) A single glaring abuse in a report, or even in a private letter or simple E-mail note, can subtly mark you as an incompetent for years thereafter. I have seen that happen too. (Yes again!)

Substandard English can reflect not just on you, but on those around you. If UCSD is a school that intelligent people attend, people who know the difference between an "alumnus" and an "alumna," people who can tell "her" from "she," then how could the editors of The UCSD Guardian ever let two co-writers get away with an illiterate headline like the following?

UCSD alumnus speaks about … an online platform her and her husband created … (November 25, 2013, p. 7)

Finally, sub-standard or even merely unskillful English can be subtly turned against you to discredit your arguments. Even if they are unaware of it, people can easily assume that if you can't write well (or can't speak well) then you probably can't think too well either. For example, in the following passage, notice the way an Associated Press reporter uses exact quotations to mock the misused words (underlined here) of the original communiqué, making the conference organizers look silly:

The communiqué [of a 1994 international conference of Communist parties] said that the "regression" suffered by the former ruling communist parties of eastern Europe "is only temporal and reversible."

Probably the writers of the communiqué intended to say "temporary," since "temporal" no longer refers primarily to time, but instead has evolved to refer to mundane matters in contrast to "spiritual" ones. By retaining the ill-advised term "temporal" in the write-up (and using quotation marks to ensure that the reader knows the word was used in the communiqué), the reporter implies that the Communists think they are a religion, just as their critics always maintained.

Similarly, notice how the Associated Press, by exactly quoting ex-President George W. Bush's mistaken use of "authoritarian" when he meant to say "authoritative," provides a tongue-in-cheek allusion both to his much criticized administration and to his famed verbal ineptness:

Bush said that in his book dealing with "the 12 toughest decisions I had to make … I'm going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written, at least there's an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened."

In a similar way, a newspaper reporter reinforced the stereotype of Alabama as a state of undereducated rubes by exactly quoting the awkward statement of its attorney general as he opposed a federal court order to permit gay marriage:

"It's my duty to speak up when I see the jurisdiction of our courts being intruded by unlawful federal authority," Moore insisted in an interview later Monday.

"Intrude" is, of course, an intransitive verb. It cannot take an object or be made passive, as Moore did. By exactly quoting Moore's poor English, the reporter easily implies that the chief justice is not a very bright light.

Several years back I told a group of students that I had seen a candidate drop off of a job short-list because of a split infinitive. After class, several students came up to ask me what a split infinitive was. If it was something a person could lose a job opportunity over, they wanted to know about it. But sadly, college writing programs tend to ignore "mechanics" in favor of "argumentation" (sometimes strangely formulaic, rather mechanical argumentation) leaving little time for attention to the conventions of "correct" and "incorrect" usage that readers unconsciously also use in evaluating what they read.

Marshalling facts, making coherent sense of them, and laying out the steps of the argument involved is clearly important to saying anything meaningful. But one can subvert one's efforts entirely if the reader decides, even unfairly, that one is stupid and uneducated. And that can too easily happen if one contervenes the conventions of written language. (The reader is not being entirely irrational: Someone who hasn't been swift enough to master writing in the course of an education may have missed a lot of other stuff too. Like noticing how the world works.)

Accordingly, this short (if growing) guide has been developed over many years in response to particularly common mechanical and usage errors that I have kept finding in student termpapers, theses, and dissertations. My original hope was limited and selfish: I hoped that by bringing a few common errors up for direct, head-on discussion, I wouldn't have to keep explaining things over and over in termpaper margins. Gradually I realized that what I really hope is that, by being alerted to some of the less obvious corners of English usage, you will never be turned down for a job because of a split infinitive.

Nearly all of the examples come from UCSD graduate and undergraduate student papers. (A few also come from early drafts of faculty papers, from clumsy administrative memos, or from poorly edited published sources.) I am grateful to these careless writers for the examples they have generously, if accidentally, provided.

The list is idiosyncratic and crotchety. So am I. (So are people who send E-mail informing me that I am idiosyncratic and crotchety.)

Suggestions for further inclusions are welcome.

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